Where have Ottawa's IT students gone?

Courtney Symons
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Co-op positions unfilled at U of O, Carleton

Allyshia Sewdat started programming when she was in high school, and it didn't take long to realize that she had found her career.

(Stock image)

"It was apparent to me that computer science and tech in general was a good gateway to a variety of applications," says the fourth-year University of Ottawa computer science co-op student. "Tech is so applicable to anything and everything."

At the height of the tech boom, Ms. Sewdat would have been graduating alongside more than 200 other local students in IT fields such as computer engineering, electrical engineering and software engineering.

But the city is currently facing a shortage of qualified IT graduates, with dozens of co-op positions going unfilled as the industry struggles to rebuild its image.

In 2001, 203 University of Ottawa students applied for co-op in an IT program. In 2002, that number dropped by 15 per cent to 172, and went further downhill from there. By 2007, only 36 students applied for a co-op position - down 82 per cent from 2001.

That number has slowly begun to creep upwards again, reaching 57 admissions in 2011, but it is nowhere near its status from a decade previous.

Not all students apply for co-op, and 734 students were enrolled in an IT program as of fall 2011. But Marc-André Daoust, associate director of co-op programs at the U of O, says he's worried about the low enrolment levels. He says he fears it's a hangover from the tech crash in Ottawa at the turn of the millennium.

"Many of these students may have seen their parents go through the IT crash," he says. "They know it's a volatile field. Perhaps some of them worry that yes, it's strong right now, but what will it look like in five or 10 years?"

Ms. Sewdat says she's heard about the tech crash time and time again, and agrees it's keeping some students away.

"You hear about a lot of new innovations, new companies, but you also hear these horror stories of layoffs and uncertainty," she says, citing the troubles at RIM, Adobe and Nortel as examples. "Given the nature of the tech industry, you could have a stable job one day and then not the next."

The irony is that there are currently more IT jobs than students. For every student there are about five co-op placements, while many programs struggle to keep the ratio at one to one. This means that IT students can afford to be choosy, and co-op placement employers must work to make themselves attractive to students.

Carleton University

This issue isn't exclusive to the U of O. Across the city, Gilles LeBlanc, manager of the career management centre at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business, says the shortage of IT students has been an issue at Carleton for the past seven years. It's not uncommon to have 10 co-op placement postings for every student.

"It's a shame because the one area that's banging on our door is the one we have very few students in," he says. "I spend a good chunk of my time explaining to people why we can't fill the jobs."

Potentially part of the issue is "the nerd factor," as Mr. LeBlanc puts it. A prevailing stereotype conjures up an image of a programmer sitting in front of a screen, punching out code all day long - which is frequently far from reality.

That's why Sprott is doing everything in its power to eliminate this perception and give students the chance to experience the true essence of IT.

Students have the option of taking a concentration in IT courses without committing to a major or even a minor. The school has hosted events and panels of alumni talking about their experiences and advertised that its co-op placement rate is 100 per cent. Nothing has really worked.

"I've been beating my head on this one for 10 years," Mr. LeBlanc says. It doesn't make sense, he adds, that students so in touch with new technology wouldn't want to head into the fields that develop it.

Algonquin College

While both Mr. LeBlanc and Mr. Grant say they know other universities across the country face the same challenge, Algonquin College offers a glimmer of hope.

Andrew Pridham, the academic chair of Algonquin's information and communications technology department, says that while the program's numbers did decrease following the tech bust, the college has been able to increase its enrolment rates by around 15 per cent each year.

Currently, Algonquin sees almost double the number of applications it did back in 2006.

"We're in growth mode," Mr. Pridham says. "The shortage of applications isn't our greatest challenge - it's space in which to place the students."

Two new programs will be added to the IT department this fall, bringing the total up to 11.

Mr. Pridham believes the hands-on nature of college makes its IT programs more appealing to students. Additionally, upon realizing the demographic of young Canadians was lower than in previous years, the college realized it needed to look elsewhere for students.

Ten per cent of Algonquin's IT department is made up of international students. This, on top of the college's focus on co-op placements, explains in part how Algonquin dodged the bullet, Mr. Pridham says.

What high schoolers think of IT

In 2009, the Conference Board of Canada set out to discover why so few students choose careers in IT. Researchers spoke with more than 1,000 Grade 9 and 10

students in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. They found:

• 36 per cent of students say IT appeals to them as a job or career option

• 10 per cent say IT is unappealing

• 34 per cent believe IT jobs are difficult and complex (versus 16 per cent who see them as straightforward)

• 31 per cent believe IT jobs are not "fun" (versus 20 per cent who think they are "fun")

• Boys are more than twice as likely to view IT as appealing (41 per cent) than unappealing (16 per cent), whereas 32 per cent of girls view IT as appealing and 25 per cent view IT as unappealing


Organizations: Algonquin College, University of Ottawa, RIM Nortel Carleton University Sprott School of Business Conference Board of Canada

Geographic location: Ottawa, Halifax, Montreal Toronto Calgary Vancouver

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Recent comments

  • Steven Evraire
    April 23, 2012 - 09:40

    An additional problem is that in high school, a student can graduate without having taken even one IT course. None are mandatory; all are optional. Since Ontario did away with grade 13/OA year, there are far fewer choices that students have. By grade 10, they have to stream themselves into one area or another, and optional courses are falling by the wayside. Having said that, in a school with one or two "champion teachers", IT courses are thriving. Look at schools like Mother Teresa HS, Garneau, or Longfields-Davidson Heights as examples.

  • James
    April 09, 2012 - 15:31

    Frederic, I believe you should be reading the latest Canadian ICT Sector Profile. Since 2002, the number of workers in the computer system design industry has increased by 28,000 while it only grew by 16,500 in the whole ICT sector. Employment in the manufacturing industries has dropped by 17,000 during the same period. I'm not sure where ICTC gets it numbers, but ICT employment numbers for the last 10 years do not show the need for more ICT workers. I see the downturn in my field in 2005, two years out of the ICT field, lost the house, etc. Please don't try to paint a rosy picture of the ICT industry, with outsourcing, temp agencies, ICT sector layoffs. This is not the case. I have informed many parents, who ask me about there children getting in the ICT industry. I just tell them my life story and of a few of my co-workers. And inform them that Business degree is the way to go.

  • Frederic Boulanger
    March 29, 2012 - 10:21

    Pointing the problem is only one part of the story. There are efforts at works to reverse this trend. I suggest you do a follow up to discuss what is being done about it if you're not already on it. It's indeed correct to assume lots of parents have experienced the crash and are not encouraging their kids to enroll. A quick consulting with ICTC so they can share their numbers and perspectives and you will see that sky is the limit in the tech field. This is the message we need to get out, and people to grasp. I also suggest you speak with Invest Ottawa about their own initiatives that I have personally been a champion of, they will share with you very encouraging picture, anyway I'm personally pumped about what's in the works.

    • New Grad
      New Grad
      March 30, 2012 - 12:33

      Having just completed a degree in Computer Engineering with a minor in Business, I can say I've been through a lot of challenges. The first hurdle I came up against was high school. Yes, my high school provided opportunity for a student to grow a great foundation in computer sciences and engineering, but seemed to always push students towards the trades (carpentry, mechanics, electricians). In University, the largest challenge is the workload. You have to have discipline. I have seen many friends drop out of engineering even after the second year! Some drop out due to low grades and others just don't want to put in the effort. Don't forget tuition! It is on the higher end of the scale versus other undergraduate programs. Then there's you're career after you graduate. In Ottawa, I have found that some employers just don't pay new grads enough. I have a couple friends who make less than 50k per year (before benefits). That's not very high, especially if your job demands a lot from you. Engineers are normally on salary and work at least 40hrs per week, so there's no overtime pay. Couple this with the fact that the private IT industry tends to shed 10% of its employees each year means that job security is usually a concern. For a new grad, normally this 10% layoff doesn't worry you too much, but it's a factor any engineer should be aware of. Another factor engineers and IT professionals need to keep in mind is the global job market. We are now competing with people around the world. This is a huge factor! It affects jobs competition, salary, etc. Companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft are also scooping up qualified new grads from Canada with incentives like higher salaries, bonuses, better work environments. For a country, like Canada, with an aging workforce this is a serious challenge for technology companies. Being a co-op mentor, I have always encouraged my engineering mentees to be choosy and why not? They deserve the right to choose. They've worked hard to get this far and employers should be working to attract good employees and keep them happy. This is a fantastic market for co-op students and they should take full advantage. This is a great industry to be in and it can be very rewarding, but issues with workload, pay and job security may turn people away. It is easy to see why others have no issue with getting a degree in business and going into management to get paid more for possibly the same amount of work. My interest in technology continues to fuel my passion and desire to innovate, which is why I am in this industry. I encourage others to do the same, but go in fully aware and armed with the knowledge of the challenges that await them.